California, the state that buys the most cars and trucks in the U.S., will ban the sale of vehicles that run on fossil fuels by 2035. This represents the biggest government move against gasoline and diesel yet, with the potential to ‘apply throughout the country. and the global automotive industry.
The California Air Resources Board, which regulates pollution in the state, voted unanimously Thursday to approve a proposal that will require 100 percent of all cars sold in the state to produce zero emissions greenhouse effect in 13 years. The board invokes its authority to protect air quality and address the impacts of climate change. Gasoline and diesel vehicles both do worse.
Lauren Sanchez, senior climate adviser to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, told reporters Wednesday that the vote marks “a great day not only for California, but for the country and the entire world as we dive headfirst into the next chapter of the zero-emissions vehicle revolution”.
In addition to that, the new rule, called the CARB Advanced Clean Cars II rule, sets an interim milestone requiring 35 percent of new vehicles to produce zero emissions “which quickly increases to nearly 70 percent of vehicle sales new by 2030, further increasing to 100 percent by model year 2035,” according to the text of the resolution.
California has long held the top position in the automobile industry. The state has nearly 30 million registered cars and trucks, and by 2021, it registered an additional 1.8 million new vehicles, of which approximately 8% were electric. CARB also has a special permit from the federal government to set tougher air quality standards for all vehicles, rules that 17 states have also adopted. Automakers don’t like making different cars for different states, so California sets the de facto standard for the country and other parts of the world.
The open question now is whether the state can achieve the goals set by the new rule. “Electric vehicles are expected to dominate the new vehicle market nationwide in the future,” Kate Whitefoot, associate professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said in an email. “The uncertainty is exactly when that will happen. This California regulation would serve to accelerate that timeline.”
The challenge is not only to get car manufacturers to build zero-emission vehicles, but also to convince drivers to buy them. The 2035 deadline is far from an environmental perspective, but very close in terms of vehicle development timelines. It takes years for a car to go from the drawing board to the road, and meeting all the diverse needs of drivers will require a new generation of zero-emission vehicles. But in the meantime, most cars sold will still run on planet-warming fossil fuels.
Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States, so meeting national and international emissions reduction goals requires rapid decarbonization of cars and trucks immediately. By 2030, the US aims to reduce its global emissions by at least 50 percent relative to 2005. But currently, only a small fraction of new vehicles in the US produce zero emissions. At the current rate of growth, only a quarter of new cars nationwide will be electric by 2035, so sales need to pick up dramatically.
And CARB’s proposal doesn’t take gas cars off the road; it just prevents dealers from selling them. Since the average car remains on the road for more than 11 years, California will still be thirsty for gasoline and diesel in the years after 2035.
As for automakers, many have said they’re committed to an electron-powered future, but California’s phase-out of fossil-fuel vehicles will test their commitments.
A General Motors spokesman said the company is still evaluating CARB’s proposal, but said in an emailed statement that the company and California “have a shared vision of an all-electric future, eliminating tailpipe emissions exhaust from new light vehicles in 2035.”
Stellantis, the company formed from the merger of Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot SA last year, said phasing out gasoline and diesel from California is in line with its own ambitions. “Stellantis is committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2038, as evidenced by our recent $35 billion investment in vehicle electrification and related software towards introduction. [of] 25 battery electric vehicles in the US market by 2030,” Eric Mayne, a spokesman for Stellantis, said in an email.
Ford, however, was much more enthusiastic about the new rule. “The CARB Advanced Clean Cars II rule is a landmark standard that will define clean transportation and set an example for America,” Bob Holycross, Ford’s chief sustainability officer, said in an email. (The company previously sided with California when a group of Republican state attorneys general sued this year to try to strip California of its special authority to set pollution standards for vehicles.)
But what about the drivers? Cars in the US are only getting more expensive. On average, a new car costs more than $47,000. New and used car prices also hit record highs this year, adding to concerns about inflation. Meanwhile, the median annual income in the US is $41,000, and 85 percent of new car purchases require loans. Total US auto loan debt is over $1.4 trillion.
These limitations make EVs even harder to sell right now. Many electric cars are currently more expensive than their gas-powered siblings. However, there are federal and state credits and incentives to lower the cost of cleaner cars and trucks. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act offers buyers $7,500 in credits for a new electric vehicle and roughly $4,000 for a used one. The law includes $100 billion to fund electric vehicle production, as well as $250 billion in loan guarantees. The federal government is also setting stricter fuel economy standards to push companies to make cleaner cars.
But electric cars are not the only way to decarbonize transport. Nearly three-quarters of vehicle trips in the U.S. are less than 10 miles, so getting people out of cars and onto buses, bikes, scooters and trains would take a bigger bite out of greenhouse gas emissions than only electrification. This will also require more incentives and investment in infrastructure.
Still, California’s deadline to take new fossil fuel cars off its roads is an important signal for the auto industry to change direction. It could be the push needed for the rumbling, carbon dioxide-spewing engines to find a way out and ride off into the sunset.
Update, August 25, 5:15 PM ET: This story was originally published on August 24 and has been updated to reflect the passage of the measure to end the sale of fossil fuel cars in California.